Transforming Defense Capabilities: New Approaches for International Security

  • Published

Transforming Defense Capabilities: New Approaches for International Security edited by Scott Jasper. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2009, 259 pp.


This collection of essays seeks to capture “practical insights and proven methodologies” (p. vii) of defense transformation for its envisioned audience of international defense policy makers. All of the contributors are affiliated with the Department of Defense in some capacity, and almost all have had significant assignments in defense transformation billets. A large majority are current or former US military officers.

The work consists of two parts. The first, “Thinking about Transformation,” which includes chapters 2–5 (although the editor’s introductory chapter rightfully belongs in this category as well), is by far the weaker. The intended conceptual discussion in this section is undermined by the ambiguity of the basic concept of “transformation,” as illustrated by the variety of definitions used throughout the volume. In chapter 1, “The Capabilities-Based Approach,” editor Scott Jasper refers to transformation as a “continuous process that shapes the nature of military competition and cooperation through new combinations of emerging technologies, streamlined organizational structures, innovative processes, and adaptive personnel developments that exploit national advantages and protect against asymmetric vulnerabilities.” He further explains that the principles of transformation originated with Soviet writings on the revolution in military affairs and that such a revolution resulted in the obsolescence of an existing core competency or the creation of a new core competency “in some dimension of warfare,” thus creating a change in the nature of war. Jasper makes clear that he considers the two terms equivalent, writing that the “less unsettling term transformation replaced revolution in military affairs to characterize the planned extension of asymmetric advantage well into the future” (pp. 2–3).

In chapter 4, “Patterns in Innovation,” John J. Garstka defines transformation in terms of innovation, asserting that “when the degree of innovation one realizes is so significant that the resulting new organizational capabilities have a large performance advantage over one’s own existing capabilities or those of competitors, then the term transformation may be applicable to the resulting change” (p. 57). He makes a distinction, however, by positing that a revolution in military affairs occurs only by way of “disruptive innovation” (p. 63) but does not explain the difference between disruption and achieving a “large performance advantage” (p. 57).

“Pressing Contemporary Issues” by Scott Moreland and James Mattox (chap. 5) claims that “a shift toward technologically sophisticated, professional, expeditionary, and streamlined forces is the essence of defense transformation in the twenty-first century” (p. 79); however, in “The Role of Concept Development” (chap. 7), one of the essays in part 2, Michael Hallett notes that “we can define transformation as a means to manage the tragedy of culture, so that the impetus to change is not provided solely by the extremely effective stimulus of defeat” (p. 120).

Jasper returns to the definitional task in the final chapter but only muddies the water further by suggesting that “an evolutionary approach achieves transformational change through the cumulative effects of innovative modernization [while] a revolutionary transformation takes place through the nonlinear development of breakthrough capabilities” (p. 215). He observes correctly, albeit unhelpfully, that the Germans viewed so-called blitzkrieg tactics as evolutionary improvement, whereas the French and British in 1940 perceived them as revolutionary.

Historian Daniel Moran analyzes this definitional conundrum and explores its implications in the second chapter, “On Military Revolution,” the best in the entire collection and worth attentive reading. Moran carefully analyzes the conceptual weakness of these labels, highlighting two key points. First, he notes that “there is no generally accepted standard for what counts as ‘revolutionary’ change” (p. 27). (Nor, I would add, is there a standard for “transformational change.”) Second, he emphasizes the rarity of revolutionary change, indicating that it will “likely . . . be brought about by a series of incremental challenges to conventional practice, whose cumulative revolutionary implications may become only gradually apparent” (p. 29). Moran also offers a nuanced examination of everyone’s favorite superficial example of transformation, the German development of mechanized warfare in the 1930s, pointing out that what appeared revolutionary in France turned out to be tactical suicide in Russia. In part 1, only this essay and Garstka’s (chap. 4), which explores the concept of innovation, reward the reader.

Part 2, “Implementing Transformation,” examines the processes of integrating changes in technology and capabilities, especially in the joint and international military environment. In chapter 6, “Collective Solution Guidelines,” for example, Kelly L. Mayes and Scott Graham propose a joint process for the management of transformation, including some criticism of the current processes. Michael Hallett supplies a useful explanation and an analysis of a step-by-step concept-development process in chapter 7, mentioned above. Lastly, chapters 9 and 10 are straightforward treatments of US service and NATO transformation programs, respectively.

Despite these virtues, I can recommend Transforming Defense Capabilities only with significant caveats. With the exception of Moran’s, most of the essays rely too heavily on official statements and policies of the US Department of Defense regarding defense transformation. Most also accept without question the “fourth generation warfare” construct popularized by William S. Lind, T. X. Hammes, and others; they also rely glibly on the need for a “capabilities-based approach,” which too often devolves into a “do everything better than everybody else approach,” without regard for budgetary or political realities. Given the intended audience of senior policy makers, one would have hoped for a deeper and more critical analysis of these assumptions. To make up for these weaknesses, the reader should supplement this volume with Antulio J. Echevarria’s Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths (2005) and Challenging Transformation’s Clichés (2006) as well as Colin S. Gray’s Transformation and Strategic Surprise (2005). These short, readable, well-argued critiques are available from the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute at http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs.



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."